Saturday, March 11, 2017

Gypsy at Tacoma Little Theatre

Bijou
by Michael Dresdner

Cassie Jo Fastabend as Gypsy   Photos by Dennis K Photography

Musicals, I think, are best during times of stress. Letting the sparkling ├ęclat of the swirling music, singing, and dancing wash over you is just the sort of delightful distraction we need to forget the daily news.

Gypsy, the musical currently at Tacoma Little Theatre, does that perfectly.

Based loosely on the memoirs of stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, it chronicles the rather sad story of Rose, the quintessential stage mother relentlessly pushing her two daughters into the spotlight. Along the way she blithely uses anyone who can further her goal, from underpaid young (and not so young) backup performers, to her long-suffering admirer and reluctant agent, Herbie (Jed Slaughter), a veritable prototype for Chicago’s Mr. Cellophane.

L to R: Stephanie Leeper as Rose, Jed Slaughter as Herbie  

Eventually, Rose alienates both daughters; Louise who became the famed stripper, and her younger sister who became actress June Havoc. It’s not until the song "Rose's Turn," in an iconic scene toward the end of the play, that Mama Rose finally voices the truth; that it was really all about forcing her daughters to fulfill her own frustrated stage desires.

L to R: Julia Wyman as June, Cassie Jo Fastabend as Louise

Brimming with great music and lyrics by Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim, this version, superbly cast and directed by Chris Serface, is a delight. And typical of good musicals, their songs, in this case numbers like "Everything's Coming up Roses", "Together (Wherever We Go)", and "Let Me Entertain You” endure long after we’ve forgotten the play they came from.

The cast is too large to name separately, and there are too many sterling scenes to  tag individually, so permit me if I just call out a few of my favorites. Know, though, that from top to bottom, this wonderfully paced musical has an amazing cast, and all the top notch technical support such a fine group of actors deserves.   

L to R: Alex Koerger, Allie (as Chowsie, the dog), Stephanie Leeper, Summer Mays, Alexandria Bray

At the outset, the talented singing, dancing, acrobatic, baton twirling Baby June (Alexandria Bray, an outstanding dancer/acrobat with an adorably penetrating Betty Boop voice,) and her overshadowed older sister Louise (Summer Mays) are at an audition. Onto the stage bursts their mother, Rose (Stephanie Leeper), a brazen, hall-filling persona with all the brassy insistence of Ethyl Merman, who was both a producer and the lead in the original 1959 musical. Leeper nails it precisely, with boundless energy, a powerful voice, a far better figure, and better moves than the original.

In one of the most clever on-stage segues I’ve seen, Baby June, Louise, and their backup retinue of surprisingly good young dancers (Caleb Corpeno, Kepler Koerger, Liam Loughridge, Gunnar Ray) launch into their stage routine. Partway through, the lighting changes to strobe, and during the visual confusion, the young troupe is gradually replaced. When the strobe lights go off, the number ends with the now much older version of June (Julia Wyman), Louise (Cassie Jo Fastabend)  and their backup group (Charlie Stevens, Kyle Yoder, Jeremy Schroeder, Rico Lastrapes) having replaced the originals on stage. It was slick. 

"All I Need Is the Girl" is another wonderful but bittersweet scene, where a clearly smitten but soon to be disappointed Louise (Cassie Jo Fastabend) looks on as Tulsa (Rico Lastrapes) sings of his need for a female partner, all while doing a complex tap dance routine. Latrapes excels at tap, and Fastabend excels at conveying the sadly one-sided chemistry between them.

But my favorite scene was one in which three strippers give Louise the lowdown that the way to make it in burlesque is by choosing a gimmick. Each in turn does her own unique act.

There’s Mazeppa (Emilie Rommel Shimkus,) strutting her flawless voice and sinuous sexuality, the ‘elegant, refined’ Tessi-Tura (Kathy Kluska) with her veils, and the most surprising of all, Electra (Caiti Burke), fully wired with her… well, you’ll see. All three were spot-on accurate portrayals of the denizens of that class of seedy burlesque houses. (DAMHIKT)

Director Chris Serface deserves kudos not only for the excellent pacing and clever scene staging, but also for his unerring ability to put together an outstanding cast. Where he found all those very talented young (and not) triple threat dancers is a true puzzlement. And then there was Chowsie (Allie), Rose’s perfectly behaved lap dog.

In lieu of a live orchestra, Serface opted for a sound track, kept perfectly balanced without ever overshadowing the singers. It was a wise choice. Michele Graves provided the vast range of excellent, and often quite amusing costumes, though I’m guessing props master Jeffrey Weaver supplied the wealth of varied wigs.

Choreography, and there was a lot of it, is thanks to Lexi Barnett, aided by dance captain Jill Heinecke, who also played the role of Agnes. Musical direction was provided by Debra A. Leach with sound design by Dylan Twiner.

As usual, Niclas Olson did a fine job lighting the complex, rotating set by Blake York, above which hung a monitor displaying old time placards used to clarify location and scene changes. And with a play this complex, we need to acknowledge the fine, and unending, work of the stage manager, Nena Curley, and her assistant, Alyshia Collins.  

In short, Gypsy was a fast-paced, dazzling, thoroughly delightful evening of musical theatre that belies its two and a half hour run time. There’s a whole lot of wonderful here, and it’s well worth your time.

Gypsy
March 10 to April 2, 2017
Tacoma Little Theatre